Guest Blog: Mountain Adventure Skills Training: Mountaineering

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Image shows individuals hiking on a glacier.

Josie Hartlin is a Mountain Adventure Skills Training (MAST) program student at our Fernie campus. The following blog post is her account of a mountaineering excursion the program recently took part in.

In the MAST program, the courses are aligned so that each builds on the last and prepares you for the next. We had just finished Rock Climbing and multi-day hiking, now it was time to put the two of those together and embark on a mountaineering trip. The six day trip took place on the Wapta Icefields in Banff National Park. In case you might be wondering what the difference between mountaineering and hiking is, let me give you a little run down.

Hiking is the act of walking on a variety of terrain such as up mountains, along coastlines, through trees and over rocks. There is a line at which hiking moves up in classification, and that line is often a rope. Sometimes in more difficult alpine hiking you may require a rope, but in all of the hiking we did as a class this was not required.

Mountaineering is, to put it simply, “extreme hiking” it takes place in the alpine, meaning above where the trees end. It includes glacier travel which brings with it a whole new set of skills and risks I will detail below. When summiting a mountain, or walking across a glacier you are often required to be attached to your group with a rope and perform either basic or advanced rock climbing techniques.

A new skill that we had to learn in order to start on our mountaineering journey was crevasse rescue. A crevasse is a crack in the glacier that can be exposed or covered with a layer of snow. When one is covered a mountaineer may not be able to tell it is there and they risk falling into the crack, which can potentially be hundreds of feet deep. Before leaving we practiced this at the park on flat ground, giving the folks of Fernie a great show. During the trip we spent the week preparing for this scenario so if it were to happen, we could perform a confident and successful rescue of our partner. On the fourth day we were tested on our ability to rescue each other.

Another new aspect was being tied to one another as we travelled. In order for a crevasse rescue to happen smoothly, you must be attached to one another with a rope. We were in groups of 3 or 4 while travelling, which took some getting used to because we really had to work together to perfect pacing and direction control.

In addition to our new skills and techniques, we had a few pieces of new gear. Our boots were specialized for the task and were higher, stiffer and more durable than a standard hiking boot. We had to wear cramp-ons, which are spikes you put onto your mountaineering boots to add grip while walking and climbing on ice. Our rock-climbing harnesses were used to tie us to one another and to carry our carabiners, ropes, and ice screws for anchor building during crevasse rescue. Rock climbing helmets were worn to protect us from falling debris. Last, but certainly not least, we had ice axes. These were used for climbing, descending, probing for crevasses and general walking aid. Also, they make you feel pretty cool.

Two mornings in a row we woke up at 5 am to summit mountains. Although the ascents would only take us a few hours, we woke up before daylight to start the adventure. We did this to ensure that we were off the mountainside before the afternoon sun. Travel across snow and ice becomes more dangerous when the sun has been warming it for a few hours. Donning our headlamps, we set off up and across the glacier before daylight made it over the mountains. This experience was surreal. To watch the sunrise take over the moon and stars in a 360 degree view is breathtaking. The sky turns every colour of pastel pink, orange and yellow as you slowly progress closer to mountain under the rising sun.

On the final day we were all exhausted but grateful for what we had learned and experienced. We were itching to get back out there again and use our new skills to adventure farther into the mountains. Travelling on glaciers opened up a whole new world of outdoor exploration for us.